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Death as Relief

It’s a bizarre feeling to be low- grade hopeful when looking for someone’s obituary. Less than when searching for a favorite pair of pants on eBay, but not the same degree of weariness as searching for information about a college roommate whom no one has heard from in a decade. 

Most people know me as someone who feels deeply and carries some grief when a stranger shares the story of their beloved partner recently dying. Simply imagining another person’s loss, my chest and belly fill with a fatiguing weight, and sadness vibrates up my throat and cheeks. 

One of the men I considered a stepfather from ages 2-7, (mom never married anyone), died last week. I hadn’t seen him since I was ten.  It’s odd when someone dies and they’ve evolved and changed beyond the person you knew them to be, but I know this only through stories from his son, not direct experience. He’s frozen in time in the messy choices he made in his 30’s and 40’s. Maybe if I had experienced the new David I would connect to the loss of a human life and feel grief. 

My last direct memory of him was when I was ten, and mom left me with him for the weekend while she went to a friend’s wedding. David let me have jelly beans for dinner and bought me a plastic slingshot at the gas station. We headed to his girlfriend’s house because she was not answering her phone and had canceled plans with him last minute. Her car was in the driveway when we got there, but she wouldn’t answer the door, nor did she respond to the rocks we tried shooting at her window. David hoisted me up to her window and had me break into her apartment. He was still using drugs at that point. David got sober and became a yogi over two decades ago. I imagine the violent, irrational, and sometimes humorous outbursts were tempered when cocaine and heroin use ceased and meditation increased.

Mining my heart for emotions about his passing, I felt blank until concern for my three step-siblings surfaced. What kind of support would feel best to them? Would my presence be more distressing or comforting at a memorial? A good friend’s mom died when we were 21, and I learned that it means something simply to show up. Since then, I’ve made it a practice whenever possible to go to friends’ parents’ funerals. 

This situation would be more complicated because one of the brothers and I are estranged since he sexually abused me. The last time I saw him I was fourteen, and he wouldn’t look at me or speak to me during a week-long visit, staying at his mom’s house, with all his siblings. The lack of any willingness to connect, even when I spoke directly to him, at the time, felt like cruel punishment because it erased our close childhood friendship, but now I see it as his shame. If he didn’t recognize I existed, perhaps his memory of what he did would evaporate too. Beyond my own discomfort, the last thing you need when your father dies is to be reminded of something you feel shame and regret around. While he’s never told me this, what I’ve heard about his addiction, and neglect of his own body and wellness speaks to potential trauma and disconnection. A body of shame is often collapsed and curled in on itself. 

I wondered how each of David’s kids are handling the loss. Did they experience pure grief or relief? When someone who has been a less-than-ideal parent dies, the untethering can feel like liberation and safety for the first time on this planet. While I feel emotionally neutral about David, I can’t say the same about my next “stepfather”, George, who was with my mom from ages 10-16. 

I wondered if George was still alive, which sent me into a time-sucking, people-searching wormhole.  I remembered his kids’ and siblings’ names, but what year was he born? Did his last name end with an s or a z? Where has he lived over the past 25 years? He was not the easiest to find with a generic name like George Gonzalez.

I had a migraine and figured I didn’t have the ability to focus on the project I needed to complete so why not do this for a while. Note to self: Next time you do a deep-dive google search be honest with yourself, you won’t stop after 10 minutes. Pay the fee for the search site right away. Don’t waste 3 hours. Your time is precious. 

I did this same search for George five years ago and didn’t save any of the information, so I started from scratch. I felt wired in an agitated way and found it hard to sleep that night. In contrast, the absence of that fearful charge in my body this time was remarkable. As part of a mindfulness training, I do a daily fifteen minute practice with a partner, checking in about a hard emotion I felt during the last twenty-four hours and where I felt it in my body. Surprisingly, this experience didn’t even rank as noteworthy.

When abusers are successfully prosecuted and imprisoned you can request a notification of release. It would be a different kind of release date to be notified when they die, but this provides a significant level of safety and potential peace. What would it mean to me to know I’d never receive another email from him, out of the blue, the way I did in my twenties, which stopped my heart, froze my breath, and put me on high alert?

A part of me still wants to understand what happened, the way survivors of Harvey Weinstein, Cosby, or Marilyn Manson may have found solace in coming together, and in knowing it was not personal. This was their schtick, their signature move. These guys victimized women in a calculated way, without remorse again and again. So in this vein, what other wreckage did George leave in his wake? A man who sexually assaulted both my mother and me, and felt justified in leaving her for dead when she didn’t give him what he wanted, a man mom was too afraid of to press charges against or even stop dating until he chose to end it. 

When I found his information under Peoplechaser, there was a list of relatives and addresses, and I momentarily considered writing letters to his children, to ask them if he stopped beating his partners or if he’d molested them. Did becoming a born-again Christian actually redeem him from being led astray from his marriage by my mother, the whore? The fearful part of me has no desire to be on his radar and is relieved to have twenty years of no contact between us. The vengeful part of me was glad to see he’d moved twenty-six times and lived an unsettled life. Jesus Christ had not been his savior in all ways, and if he was alive still, then that increased his likelihood of suffering, given living is often less peaceful than death. 

Sometimes death is a relief, not just for the person who may have been suffering from an illness or a less-than-savory existence, but for those left behind. A chapter complete. An exhale. 

It’s less that I want George dead than I want to know his 6’2” 280lb frame will never walk towards me again. I want assurance that he won’t harm anyone else. I want George’s death in the way that it brings finality to an old story and freedom from fear of being found. But waiting puts the power to close that door in his hands. 

Is it possible to find this same degree of peace when your abusers are still in physical form? Most of the time I do feel a sense of ease in my body I couldn’t imagine as a twenty-five year old. Is it justice or is it safety that is really wanted? I wonder about Jeffrey Epstein’s victims and how justice was never served when he died before coming to trial. And what exactly is justice? People who believe in the death penalty often don’t recognize context and conditioning and how a history of social and developmental trauma can shape someone. While of course George’s own experiences of being bullied and abused in his own family do not excuse his behavior, the trauma therapist in me understands cycles of violence. 

With this spiral of healing, also comes layers of forgiveness practices, and I have repeatedly meditated on forgiving him, forgiving my parents and forgiving myself. Meditation, visualization and somatic practices to keep revisiting safety in my body and move rage, grief and fear up and out are the ways I have found to not just wait for death to come.

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© 2022 By Charna Cassell, LMFT. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. MFC 51238.

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